Lox Council Hashes Out Changes To Tree Preservation Rules

The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council approved the preliminary reading of a revised tree ordinance last week but will make some changes before its final approval.

Planning consultant Jim Fleischmann said the ordinance is a rewrite of the town’s tree preservation and invasive exotic species ordinance.

“This ordinance does need to be heard by the town’s Local Planning Agency, but we’re going to have the LPA meeting prior to the second reading of the ordinance, and that’s perfectly appropriate,” Fleischmann said, adding that the ordinance is one of the most important documents in that it regulates the removal of trees in the town. “It helps to preserve the tree canopy, which is a major component of the town’s rural character.”

Fleischmann praised the town’s Uniform Land Development Committee, which spent many meetings rewriting the ordinance. “They worked extremely hard on this,” he said.

The committee went over the ordinance word by word and came up with what he considers a superior ordinance to the old one.

“We had several very heated debates on certain topics in the ordinance and… we did end up in consensus and made several very good improvements to the current ordinance,” Fleischmann said.

He explained that the committee wound up deleting the existing ordinance and replaced it with a totally new version with nine different topics.

“The first is a total revision of the code to make it more concise and in a more readable format for those property owners and developers who are going to have to use the ordinance,” Fleischmann said. “The second was the addition of multiple key definitions that make the ordinance more readable and better understood.”

The new ordinance also makes a clear distinction between the requirements for exemptions, waivers and tree removal permits.

Exempt activities, such as removal of invasive exotics or the clearing of agricultural land or pastures for maintenance, do not require approval from the town. Tree removal waivers are only allowed in the agricultural residential district that are approved by the town, but no mitigation is required. Tree removal permits are approved by the town and require mitigation for removal of native trees.

“If you take a tree out, you have to relocate it or you have to pay to the town’s tree removal mitigation fund for the replacement,” Fleischmann said.

Tree removal permits for large tracts, such as a sod farm recently approved by the council for the Miami Dolphins, formerly approved by the town manager, must now go before the council.

“Tree removal permits are now done administratively,” Fleischmann said. “The way it’s being proposed is that the town manager would have the option to take it to the town council for approval if he deems that it’s a necessary consideration by the council.”

Fleischmann added that the sod farm had to make a $2 million donation to the tree mitigation fund, but it will receive all that back when they receive an agricultural designation. However, under the new ordinance, the sod farm would have made a $200,000 non-refundable donation.

The revised ordinance also has a tree replacement plan calling for specific sizes of replacement and makes a provision that property owners can be receivers of trees that are removed from other properties.

“That’s a tree mitigation alternative that we’ve added into the code,” Fleischmann said. “We’ve also added a specimen tree list. Those are large, prime examples of native trees. The mitigation for removing specimen trees is greater.”

The new ordinance also includes changes in setback requirements for commercial and institutional districts that can be granted by the council in trade for preservation of trees on the site.

“If there’s a property that has several good specimen trees and they would have to be taken down in order to meet the setback requirements or the parking requirements, they can come to the council and see if they can make a trade,” Fleischmann said, citing examples such as fewer or smaller parking spaces.

Councilwoman Anita Kane said she appreciated the hard work of the committee and made a motion to approve the preliminary reading of the ordinance.

Mayor Dave Browning said he also appreciated the work of the committee but had a problem with the ordinance.

“Going all the way back to the founding of our town, we were trying to stop clear-cutting of the land because we lose our tree canopy, and we lose the character of our community,” Browning said.

Browning added that with the council’s suspension of code enforcement except for health, safety and welfare reasons, there is no way that the town can enforce a ban on clear cutting.

During public comment, former Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District Supervisor John Ryan said he appreciated the work that had gone into the ordinance, but even with code enforcement in place, the town would have difficulty enforcing it.

“I don’t think we’re going to have enough employees at the town level that we’re going to be content to pay to really carry this out in this level of detail,” Ryan said.

Fleischmann explained that the cost of enforcement would be covered under a mandatory cost recovery fee from the developer, but Vice Mayor Todd McLendon said landowners who clear trees illegally escape those recovery fees.

Town Attorney Michael Cirullo said landowners facing high fees for illegal activities escape high daily fines when they let the fines go so long that they exceed the value of the property, which comes under scrutiny by judges deciding on the cases.

Resident Paul Coleman said he did not think the town should give a landowner an agricultural exemption allowing him to clear cut trees before they can show they have a bona fide agricultural use.

Marianne Miles, who sits on the Uniform Land Development Committee, asked if there is a way to place a lien on a property that is changing hands until the new owner has proof of agricultural use, and Cirullo said he would research the question.

McLendon said he felt there should be a requirement that trees be removed from utility easements, so they do not grow into power lines, but the ordinance does not make that mandatory.

Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia said she felt the ordinance goes too far in some cases and recommended another tweaking before its final reading.

Cirullo reminded the council that the town has the existing ordinance in place until the council approves the final reading of the new ordinance.

“If you don’t pass this, it is not eliminating the existing rules,” Cirullo said.

Fleischmann said the new ordinance is not as restrictive to property owners as the existing ordinance.

“I think we probably should take it back for review,” he said. “If you could give me a list of topics for us to cover, that would help.”

Kane amended her motion to approve the ordinance with the provision to go back and look at changes that had been discussed that evening, which carried 5-0.